Sunday, March 16, 2008

My Lifesong

I wrote a tribute as a testimony to my brother’s faith while he was staring down one of life’s greatest trials. He lived Hebrews 3:5-6 knowing that God hadn’t forsaken him, nor would Joey forsake his God.

Joey & I are the only children of Jean & Leon. (He went by Joey for a long time until he went to college, and then we were supposed to start calling him Joe. I tried to respect his wishes, but he’ll always be Joey to me.) He is 3 years and 4 months older than I am. When I was two and he was five, our parents divorced. We lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and our dad lived in Montgomery. Both sets of grandparents lived a couple of hours away in different parts of the state. While we spent a good deal of time with each of them, our family was made up of my mom, my brother and me. Family outings and vacations always consisted of the three of us.

Our mother worked long hours and typically Joe would take care of me until she got home. Although we fought like cats and dogs when we were younger, we became great friends, the way most siblings do. We talked often and of many different things. I truly couldn’t have loved or respected him anymore than I did.

Joe was always the bright shining star of our family. While he didn’t try to outdo anyone he just possessed a natural ability to exceed everyone’s expectations. He was a very intelligent person. He had high goals for himself, even as a child. We attended the same school from kindergarten to 8th grade, and he was the best student they had ever had attend. (I know this because I heard this often from our teachers.) I went back to Advent to visit a few years ago, and was still remember as Joey Morgan’s little sister. He was the valedictorian of his High School class at Altamont, which was shocking to me because I never saw him study!

He wasn’t content to just sit around and not do anything. When he was 13, he started working for a local toy & hobby shop. He loved working on the trains and models. After he started driving, he worked at our friend’s video arcade. He could fix a machine in no time.

After he graduated from high school, he attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was under a Naval ROTC scholarship. He soon learned, much to his surprise, I’m sure, that he wasn’t the smartest person around! While attending school, he interned at GE, worked as a teacher’s assistant, and performed his ROTC duties. Somehow he found time to study and he graduated with a double master’s degree in computer and electronic engineering.

Following graduation, he joined the Navy as an officer and began preparing for his tour of duty. He loved a challenge so he decided to work on nuclear submarines. He learned that it wasn’t so easy being an officer and he was going to have to delegate tasks to other people. He much preferred to do it all himself, but that is not what a supervisor is to do. I think by the time his duty was up, he had learned how to effectively manage other people.

After he left the Navy, he returned to Birmingham. He started working for our friend, who used to own the video arcade. Our friend now owned a large video game business that operated throughout the state. A couple of years later, Joey left and started working for Anderson Consulting (now Accenture) in their information technology department. He quickly started progressing up the corporate ladder and became a team lead. He led a team of 10 people, who adored him. As with our family, he was considered a rising star with the company. Right after his diagnosis, he found out that he had been promoted to an executive level position.

For all that he did, I believe his biggest challenge in life was not solving problems or overcoming dilemmas, but was relating to other people in way that did not make them feel ignorant. He made it seem effortless, but it was hard for him. In recent years, he developed a wonderful personality and an awesome sense of humor. People looked up to him and respected his abilities.
In 2002, my mother told me over the Valentine’s Day weekend that she was worried about Joe. He was having stomach problems and wasn’t feeling well. I wasn’t alarmed - I figured he needed to make some diet/stress modifications. We’ve always struggled with our weight and diet. However, on February 21st, I received a call that would forever change my life. Mom called and said “They think your brother has cancer - lymphoma.” I quickly found that lymphoma is very treatable and squelched my fears. Still, I made plans to fly home to spend time with him. At the time, we lived in Seattle, Washington and our two daughters were 9 and 6.

Unfortunately, Joey didn’t have lymphoma and the news he continued to receive only got worse. On 3/1, after performing multiple biopsies and tests, Joe had a diagnosis: Metastatic Stage IV Esophageal cancer. The esophagus is the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. The cancer had spread into his lymph nodes and had formed a large, non-operable, globular tumor. The tumor had attached itself to his organs and was causing the organs to be distressed. On March 4th, Joe started what was to be his only option for treatment: 96 continuous hours of chemotherapy with some potent drugs. So potent, in fact, that the pharmacist called the doctor to double check the dosage.

After a few days, the doctor said that the chemo didn’t appear to be working. He said that Joe’s organ function, particularly the liver and kidneys, were not reacting positively and he was quite concerned. He suggested that we prepare for the worse and he estimated that Joe only had a couple of weeks left to live. It was at the end of the chemo treatment that I got to Birmingham. I was shocked to see my brother so weak and pregnant looking. He was in so much pain; he wouldn’t even let me hug him. Initially, I was only going to be there for the weekend, but I just couldn’t make myself go back to Seattle.

The doctor’s news seemed like a challenge for Joey. He started getting his affairs in order, just in case, but he was determined to beat this cancer.

At his next doctor visit, we sat in the waiting room for what seemed forever. We had made it through the weekend, which really surprised the doctor. The three of us were pretty nervous waiting to see what the doctor would say, and I remember Joey placing his hand on mine, patting my leg, and simply saying, “I love you.” I choked back, “I love you too”. It was the only time I knew how scared Joey was.

At this doctor’s visit and subsequent ones, the doctor told us that Joe’s liver and kidney functions were improving and we were pretty ecstatic. The chemo was working! The tumor was shrinking! The doctor started talking about more chemo. One day Joe felt so good that he walked out on to the patio dancing and singing “I Feel Good!” a la James Brown. A precious memory for sure.

Joey received a visit from a pastor from Valleydale Baptist, the church he was attending. He wanted to transfer his membership to this church from the one he had been attending in Florida. I was blessed to hear my brother profess his faith in Jesus Christ. With certainty, he could say that he was part of our Father’s family and he had a place in heaven because he knew that Jesus was the Son of God.

Joe and I had many different conversations regarding his feelings about his illness. Being the inquisitive sort, I wanted to know how he really felt about everything. These are the things that he shared with me: I am not angry about my illness - at whom would I be mad? I am scared, because I know that one day, I’m going to die from this. But most importantly what he said was: I know that this is God’s plan. I know that God can cure me or he can call me home. I’m selfish and I’m not ready to go, but if it’s God’s will then it’s His will. Joe knew that God would never leave him. Hebrews 13:5 tells us - “He hath said, I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” Just as God would not leave my brother, he wasn’t about to leave or forsake God because of cancer. While he could have been angry or yelled “why me?” he knew that God was with him.

Because he seemed to be doing better, he really wanted me to take the girls and head back to Seattle. They were missing school while we were there and I was missing work, neither of which I cared about at the time. I asked him before I left why he had to be the first to do everything. He held up his index finger and said “I’m number 1!” He admitted that he hadn’t really intended on being first to die. I told him I wanted to take this cancer from him, even if was just a part of it. He told me I couldn’t do that because I had two daughters to care for. That wouldn’t be fair to them.

On March 25, 2002, just 24 days after his initial diagnosis, Joe was told that there were no other options available to him for treatment. The doctor said that his time was short. His body couldn’t handle any more chemotherapy and his liver was failing him. With quiet resolve, he said okay.
He had a few more things left to take care of before he could be called Home. He still didn’t get angry. He knew that God’s plan was not to include a cure and that his time with us was very limited. However, he was no longer scared. Psalm 23:4 tells us “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou are with me. Thy rod and thy staff comfort me.” I truly believe this is how Joe felt.

Two days before he passed away, Joe witnessed to our uncle. He asked him if he believed in Jesus and would Joe see Philip in Heaven one day? How selfless an act to be worried about someone else’s soul while he was fighting a battle that could not be won? Joe wanted to make sure that he would be greeting all of his loved ones again.

Again, I loaded up the girls and we flew back to Birmingham. We arrived late on the 27th. They went to their grandparent’s house to spend the weekend. I was pretty shocked to see my brother. I had only been away 6 days, but the look of death was taking over. I don’t know how I kept my sobs away from his ears.

On 3/28, Joe was pretty miserable most of the day because he was so bloated. He was having a really hard time getting comfortable, yet he kept saying that he was so tired. Late that evening, as my mom and I watched, the good Lord wrapped his arms around Joe and stopped his pain. He took him home to Heaven, only 27 days after his diagnosis.

As I try to make sense of what has happened to my brother and why it happened, I realize that I may never know. God’s plan and His will are some times not meant to be known. However, I would like to believe that my brother’s story will give God the glory He deserves. My brother gave an awesome testimony to God during his illness. He never complained; he never got angry; he never said “why me?” He accepted his fate because he knew God had a plan for him. Know that my brother wasn't perfect, nor did he claim to be. He was a good man and giving with his time and resources, but he knew that this was not the way to ensure his entry to heaven. He knew you had to accept that Christ was the Son of God, died for our sins and rose again three days later. How many people can look death in the face and say “It’s okay, God is with me, He hasn’t forsaken me”? How many of those are 37 years old who had a whole life ahead of them? Not only did Joe know that he had a place in heaven, he shared his faith with others. How many people have the faith to say “Yes, I have a place in heaven because I have truly accepted Jesus as my savior?” Reader…can you?

Part of what gets me now is that in March of 2008, just 6 months from now, my brother will have been gone 6 years. He never made it past 37 and I’m about to be 40. I ask myself “how is that possible?” all the time. It’s a weird dynamic to go from being the baby sister to an only child in an instant. What do you say when people ask if you have any brothers or sisters? I almost feel bad for them when I tell them my brother is in heaven because they don’t know what to say. Usually they say, “Sorry”. And I’ll say, “It’s ok.” Neither of us really knows what to say to the other.

Of course, my story didn’t end on March 28, 2002, though in a way, it did mark the end of my life. We put our Seattle house on the market and moved back to Birmingham. I wanted the girls to be close to their family and I felt the need to be close to my mom. In reality, none of us were really handling Joey’s death all that well, and we needed each other.

In August of that year, my Mom’s dad was placed on hospice care for his congestive heart failure. Big Daddy showed us where we each got that fighter spirit from. He stayed around and kicking until November of 2003. I think I heard the angels singing the day he went home. I know they were glad to have him. I know I was glad he was whole again. It was painful to witness his steady decline.

My husband was working a contract in Louisville, Kentucky. Being in Birmingham put us closer together, but not soon enough. Too much time apart and too much past had hurt our marriage, and we separated in November of 2002. We briefly reconciled in 2003, but our marriage to each other was not to be saved. Unfortunately, the divorce proceedings got ugly and just couldn’t be over quick enough for me. It took us a couple of years to get back on pleasant speaking terms. He is remarried and living in Louisville with his wife and her two daughters. He still works contract jobs.

In December of 2002, my mom had surgery on her back. She was released from the hospital and almost died while in my care of septic shock. God was watching over us and got her back into the hospital and in the care of a wise ER nurse just in time. She fought the infection that was trying desperately to kill her. She went into cardiac arrest two times. She stayed in the hospital from December 19, 2002 until February 28, 2003. I could write a novel about this time frame, as it was truly another defining time period in my life.

When my husband left after the Easter service in April, 2003, I just pretty much threw my
hands up in the air and just gave up for a while. Obviously nothing I was doing was working out and I was really tired of even trying. I was mad. I was mad at God and I told Him so. I didn’t try to work it out with Him either. I didn’t want to work it out. I wanted to do my own thing for while. And do my own thing I did.

I spent most of my time planning what type of fun I could have (when the kids were gone). What was I going to do to keep me from really thinking about how crappy my life was? Who was going to be the next person to momentarily make me feel better? How was I going to alleviate the guilt I was feeling? Where was the next party? Most of the things I did to make me feel better, in the long run, just made me feel worse.

I continued on this destructive path for a while. I had a little devil and a little angel sitting on my shoulder and usually it was the little devil who would win. What the devil wanted to do seemed more fun anyway. The devil was pretty good at drowning out that little angel.

I started settling down when James and I started dating. When we decided to marry, I was pretty adamant about getting married by a preacher and having our union blessed by God. It seems pretty funny given everything I was doing and how far from God I had gotten that I insisted we get married by a preacher. I guess that little angel was working hard at being heard over the little devil.

Even after getting married, there were still parts of my life I wasn’t ready to turn over to God. Until I was ready to turn everything over, I knew I couldn’t go to church. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I don’t know how to explain this except to say that there are some things that you do that you know are 100% against the will of God and they cannot be justified. At one point, I tried coming back to church regularly. I was telling myself that all sin was the same in God’s eyes. God was just happy I was in His house. This might have been true, but that tug on my heart told me something different. I just wasn’t ready to stop the sin.

The conviction of the Holy Spirit is a funny little thing. We started tussling back and forth a little, but soon after James left for his deployment in July 2006 is when the conviction really hit. I started having conversations with various people about church and sins and hypocrisies, etc. I pointed out that sin was sin in God’s eyes, and how could you say my sin was any bigger than your sin? Oh what a merry go round (that wasn’t very merry) we got on with this debate. One well intending person finally got through my thick skull and pointed out that the fruit on my branches was so rotten that no one could taste the sweetness of Christ in the fruit if they tried. My life was showing that my branches should be pruned from the vine and burned. (John 15) I got it then.

That Sunday I got up and ready for church. I couldn’t fight the Holy Spirit anymore, nor did I want to. I sat through the service with what felt like an elephant on my heart. I couldn’t wait for the service to be over. As soon as any type of invitation was given, I think I about sprinted down to the altar and got on my knees and started praying. I don’t remember a whole lot of what went on, except telling Steve that I was tired of just talking the talk and I wanted to walk to walk. And boy did I cry and cry and cry. Several people came up to me at the altar and hugged on me and said things to me. I couldn’t tell you who or what they said. But I remember allowing the Spirit to take over.

I always wondered why I didn’t seem to grow as a Christian. Even though I had been in church for most of my life and accepted Christ at a young age, I just never grew. I stayed active in church activities, I guess hoping that would help me grow. I read my bible. I went to church. Nothing worked. But, walking to the altar on August 13, 2006, and begging God to forgive me of my sins and allowing His Spirit permanent residence in my life worked. I guess it was just my time to start growing.

I wish I could say that I no longer deal with any of the strongholds of sin that kept me away from church for so long, but I do. None of them do I do any longer, but some I struggle with daily, and others God just took them away. I just have to remember to give it over to Him and not even think I can be in control. Sometimes I don’t even make it daily but I go moment by moment. I have to remember that if God wouldn’t take the thorn from his faithful servant Paul’s flesh, then why would I expect Him to take the thorn from me? “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.” (2 Cor. 12:7–10)

I think some of the best advice I heard about living a Christ-filled life is best summed up in this children’s song: “Oh Be Careful Little Ears”.
Oh, be careful little ears, what you hear;
Oh, be careful little eyes, what you see;
Oh, be careful little mouth, what you say;
Oh, be careful little hands, what you do;
Oh, be careful little feet where you go;
Oh, be careful little mind what you think;
Oh, be careful little heart what you love
For the Father up above is looking down with love, oh, be careful little one what you hear, say, say, do, go, think and love. (I have to remember this as a mom too.)

My testimony doesn’t end here. It’s just getting started. I’m having so much fun soaking up God’s word and growing spiritually. Watch out world because here I come! With the Father up above looking down with love, I’m going to be shouting His praises and glory all the day long.

Cathy Davis